Boldface names and high taste unify the Women Sculptors, currently on view at Westmont’s Ridley-Tree Museum of Art. Inspired by Revolution in the Making, a major show of abstract sculpture by women currently on display at Hauser Wirth & Schimmel in Los Angeles, Ridley-Tree director Judy Larson shuffled the museum’s programming to put this selection of works by women from its permanent collection on display. Through the generosity of the Dewayne and Faith Perry Print Acquisition Fund and a couple of key outside loans, Larson has contextualized the significant collection of three-dimensional work by women in the museum’s already-impressive permanent collection with some excellent works on paper. As a result, the walls of the show are punctuated by prints from such well-known sculptors as Louise Bourgeois and Lee Bontecou.
A plasticine pipeline balanced delicately atop jagged-topped glass jars slashes through the museum’s main gallery, a conduit seemingly destined to rupture. This signature piece of the show is “Untitled” (1989) by the German artist Asta Gröting. Stylistically, it is the show’s most severe work and supports the notion that the modern experience of “women sculptors” is decidedly art first and gender roles second. Seen here in Santa Barbara, Gröting’s work bears an eerily prophetic relation to last year’s Refugio Oil Spill.
Exhaling calm among the ramped-up conceptual pieces, a cluster of five stoneware works by recently deceased sculptor Karen Karnes allows the viewer to take an honorable pause. The works span from 1970-2010, and the most recent piece, “Two Pieces Joined” (2010), sheds light on gender roles by melting two small salt and pepper shaker vessels into a beautiful balance of masculine and feminine. Even as she turns away from producing usable ceramics, Karnes adds a note of artisanal softness to the show as a whole.
Opposite Karnes, both aesthetically and spatially, is another ceramic artist and a Westmont favorite, Jenchi Wu, who finds a home among heroes with her installation “Colony” (2010). Seemingly agnostic toward the museum’s interior-exterior boundaries, Wu’s pieces can be found throughout the campus’s sprawling 110-acre estate. With unusual bodily forms and unfinished edges, the artist’s base-like use of ceramics is entirely subservient to the works’ haphazard structure; the artist seemingly unfazed by notions of the medium’s normal trajectory.
Rounding out the show’s contemporary edge, Lynn Aldrich’s “Primary Virtues: Faith, Hope and Love” (1989), embodies a late-20th-century affinity for the conceptual using a rebus format of layered crutches, endless velvet hearts, and illicit, airtight packets. One can imagine the artist’s cathartic expression of feminine strength rebounding in unison with her personal life. The aesthetic outcome is graceful — a girlish counterweight to Gröting’s genderless severity, and a definite highlight of the show.
In terms of dealing with the female experience, there is no single work in the show more poignant than Kiki Smith’s mixed ink-and-etchings piece, “Kneeling Woman with Rabbit” (2004). The gaze of a stoic rabbit confronts the viewer from the palms of a woman who appears to be spellbound by the creature, seeking guidance as she kneels in a humble, prayer-like position. Layers of creased Nepalese paper are collaged together in a way that bring to mind a cognizance of aging and draws attention to the humanity of the individual behind the artwork. As the first generation of liberated females struggles to reconcile endless professional possibilities with the assurances enjoyed by their ancestors, the piece brings to light a still-taboo unintended consequence of feminism: the paradox of choice. Certainly one choice we can all make is to visit the Ridley-Tree Museum and bear witness to the feats of the internationally acclaimed consortium of artists on display in Women Sculptors.